Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Media Courtesans

From a speech delivered by Ted Koppel to the Inter­national Radio and Television Society in New York City last October, upon receiving its "Broadcaster of the Year" award.

I don't know what's happened to our stan­dards. I fear that we in the mass media are creat­ing such a market for mediocrity that we've diminished the incentive for excellence. We celebrate notoriety as though it were an achievement. Fame has come to mean being recognized by more people who don't know any­thing about you. In politics, we have encour­aged the displacement of thoughtfulness by the artful cliche.

Which brings me to my own profession, in­deed, my very own job and that of several of my distinguished colleagues here. Overestimated, overexposed-and by reasonable comparison with any job outside sports and entertainment, overpaid. I am a television news anchor-role model for Miss America contestants and tens of thousands of university students in search of a degree without an education. How does one live up to the admiration of those who regard the ab­sence of an opinion as objectivity or (even more staggering to the imagination) as courage?

How does one grapple with a state of national confusion that celebrates questions over an­swers? How does one explain or, perhaps more relevant, guard against the influence of an in­dustry which is on the verge of becoming a hal­lucinogenic barrage of images, whose only grammar is pacing, whose principal theme is energy?

We are losing our ability to manage ideas; to contemplate, to think. We are in a constant race to be first with the obvious. We are becom­ing a nation of electronic voyeurs whose capac­ity for dialogue is a fading memory, occasionally jolted into reflective life by a one-liner: "New ideas." "Where's the beef?" "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." "Window of vulner­ability." "Freeze now." "Born again." "Gag me with a spoon." "Can we talk?"

No, but we can relate. Six-year-olds want to be stewardesses. Eight-year-olds want to be pi­lots. Nineteen-year-olds want to be anchorper­sons. Grown-ups want to be left alone, to interact in solitary communion with the rest of our electronic global village.

Consider this paradox: Almost everything that is publicly said these days is recorded. Al­most nothing of what is said is worth remember­ing. And what do we remember? Thoughts that were expressed hundreds or even thousands of years ago by philosophers, thinkers, and proph­ets whose ideas and principles were so universal that they endured without videotape or film, without the illustrations or photographs or car­toons-in many instances even without paper, and for thousands of years without the easy du­plication of the printing press.

What is largely missing in American life to­day is a sense of context, of saying or doing any­thing that is intended or even expected to live beyond the moment. There is no culture in the world that is so obsessed as ours with immedi­acy. In our journalism, the trivial displaces the momentous because we tend to measure the im­portance of events by how recently they hap­pened. We have become so obsessed with facts that we have lost all touch with truth.

As broadcast journalists, it's easy to be se­duced into believing that what we're doing is just fine; after all, we get money, fame, and to a certain degree even influence. But money, fame, and influence without responsibility are the assets of a courtesan. We must accept re­sponsibility for what we do, and we must think occasionally of the future.

Harper’s Magazine, January 1986

A Last Word from the Poet - The Decline of the West by John Ashbery

A Last Word from the Poet

John Ashbery is the author of 15 volumes of poetry, including A Wave, Flow Chart and the Skaters. He received a Pulitzer Prices and National Book Award for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

How natural, it seemed to the editors of FORBES, to ask a poet to have the last word in this part of our 75th anniversary special section. As we stand here in 1992, just eight years short of the beginning of the Third Millennium A.D., we sense through­out the world a bewildering juxtaposition of material progress and spiritual discontent. What does it mean, this angst? It seemed fitting to turn
to a poet for an opinion. Poets, after all, often grasp great truths long before philosophers or economists or scientists become aware of them.

We chose the American poet John Ashbery, who, some think, is influencing poetry in the English language in the last third of this century as William Butler Yeats did in the first third.

Ashbery is not an "easy" poet, direct and accessible as, say, Edna St. Vincent Millay is easy. He is intricate, dense, given to metaphors that often seem to require, and elude, decoding. He also delights in the everyday language of adver­tising, of street talk, of old nursery rhymes. The combination can be extraordinary. Comment­ing on "Flow Chart," a very long (215 pages) Ashbery lyric published last year, the poet and critic Helen Vendler said: "By entering into some bizarrely tuned pitch inside myself I can find myself on Ashbery's wavelength, where everything at the symbolic level makes sense. The irritating (and seductive) thing about this tuning in is that it can't be willed, I can't make it happen when I am tired or impatient. But when the frequencies meet, the effect on me is Ash­bery's alone, and it is a form of trance."

Ashbery's title for the poem that follows is taken, of course, from the major work that brought Oswald Spengler, the German philoso­pher, worldwide fame earlier in this century. Spengler maintained that every culture goes through a life cycle from youth through maturi­ty and old age to death. Western culture, he believed, had gone through the same cycle and was now in a period of decline, to be conquered by "the yellow race." Ashbery here has applied his "affable skepticism" (the phrase is Vend­ler's) to Spengler's dismal theme.

The Decline of the West

O Oswald, O Spengler, this is very sad to find!

My attic, my children

Ignore me for the violet-banded sky.

There are no clean platters in the cupboard

And the milkman’s horse tiptoes by, as though

Afraid to wake us.

What! Our culture in its dotage!

Yet this very poem refutes is,

Springing up out of the collective unconscious

Like a weasel through a grating.

I could point to other extremities, both on land

And at sea, where the wave will gnash your stark theories

Like a person eating a peanut. Say, though,

That we are not exceptional,

That, like the curve of a breast above a bodice,

our parabolas seek and find the light, returning

from not too far away. Ditto the hours

we’ve squandered: daisies, coins of light.

In the end he hammered out

What it was not wanted that we should know.

For that we should be grateful,

And for that patch of a red riding-hood

Caught in brambles against the snow.

His book, I saw it somewhere and I bought it.

I never read it for it seemed too long.

His theory though, I fought it

Though it spritzes my song,

And now the skateboard stops

Impeccably. We are where we exchanged

Positions. O who could taste the crust of this love?

An Awakened Conscience by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson has written more than two dozen works of history, including a History of the Jews, Modern Times: The World from the twenties to the Eighties and Intellectuals. His awards include the Francis Boyer Public Policy and the Krug Award for Excellence literature. He is presently at work on a history of the American people.

A paradox now faces the United States, one that is glaringly apparent to a regular visitor like myself. A major­ity of its inhabitants are enjoying a material prosperity unprece­dented in history. Yet it is nonetheless riven by ferocious self-doubt and self criticism, and even by a sense of failure and doom. That paradox is rooted deep in American history. For the United States, from its earliest origins in the first decade of the 17th century, has been an uneasy blend of practicality and utopianism, created, on the one hand, by sensi­ble, moderate men of the world, and on the other by extremists and fanatics, who saw visions and sought to realize them at any cost. Satisfac­tion in its huge material achievements, therefore, has always been undermined by a nagging sense that the Garden of Eden, the Godly kingdom the pioneers and pilgrims set out to build, has somehow eluded their progeny. Americans tend to fix their gaze not on what has been done, but on what has been left undone.

At the bottom of it all lies a particular religious faith. America was a religious creation. The militant English Protestants of the 16th century thought of the English as "the Chose­n People,” the New Israel. When King Charles I refused to build the New Jerusalem in England, the Puritans, and other religious extremists , decided to create it in the Americas. There, a new elect would arise and build what John Winthrop termed "a City upon a Hill," to serve as a beacon of enlightenment to all the nations of the world.

These early settlers really believed in their Godly mission, as their letters, diaries and even their legal enactments abundantly testified. The early constitutional documents such as the Mayflower Compact itself, the 1639 Fundamental Orders of Connecticut and the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, are redolent with this sense of divine and humanitarian mission, the belief that what was being designed would be unique in moral and material moral history. They were even more ambitious than the early radicals of the French Revolution in 1789 be­cause they felt that their foundation was not merely of secular and worldly significance but was also to be a halfway house to eternity and the heavenly kingdom. When Thomas Prince wrote his early-18th-century history of New England, he began with "Genesis," the creation story, believing that the founding of America opened the culminating phase in God's divine plan for the world. The Americans had taken the place of the Israelites fleeing "Egypt," that is Europe, to settle the Promised Land. Even a severely practi­cal man like Benjamin Franklin proposed in the 1770s that the seal of the newly created United States should show Moses leading the children of Israel across the Red Sea. And, amid all the horrors of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln could still wryly refer to the Americans as "the almost-chosen people."

Those who settled these lands in the early 19th century could scarcely believe their good fortune. One wrote: "After the first year, I never saw any scarcity of provisions." Another: "No weeds or grass sprang up on such ground the first year and the corn needed no attention with plough or hoe. Provisions in abundance was the rule." In 1819, from the new township of Franklin, the Missouri Intelligencer offered a spring toast: "Boon's Lick - two years since, a wilderness. Now - rich in corn and cattle!"

Moreover, such land was available at prices lower than at any other time in history. Land, which in Europe had to be fought for or painful­ly acquired, piece by piece, over generations, was available in the United States even to the poor. The Land Ordinance of 1785 offered public lands to farmers in 640-acre (one square mile) lots at a dollar an acre. The lots were later reduced in size to facilitate settlement by poorer men, and by 1800 a man could buy a farm for as little as $100, which, wages being so high, he could easily save in two years' work as a laborer. Under different laws, public lands varied in price from $2 an acre to as little as 12 cents, and under the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Timber Culture Act of 1873, a citizen got 160 acres absolutely free if he agreed to live on and cultivate them. A peasant from Europe, where he and his progeny could never hope to own anything other than a vegetable patch, could become a prosperous freeholding farmer in a decade or less. Nothing like this had ever hap­pened before-or since. It gave to the United States a sense of exaltation, a deep, warm feeling that Divine Providence was smiling on it and its people. And that in turn raised expectations of still more bounty.

There was, however, a serpent in this Garden of Eden: a necessary serpent, perhaps, but dead­ly nonetheless. Debt. Many of the original settlers in all 13 states that came into existence before the Revolution had financed their purchases of land and tools by debt. For a poor man to acquire debt in Europe was difficult, usually impossible; no one would lend him money as he had no collateral. In America it was easy, be­cause he had the security of his labor and, above all, a limitless future. Land purchase by debt, speculation on credit, were thus written into the title deeds of the new nation. It was inevitable, and it was fully justified by the speed at which the land was settled and debt, in most cases, discharged. But acquiring debt, borrowing against the future, became a national character­istic: Indebtedness was not only not shameful it was almost, in a sense, patriotic, and once independence was gained, financial institutions, above all a plethora of banks, came into being to serve this marked American prosperity.

The state abetted the process. The Harrison Land Law of 1800, for instance, sold the public 320-acre farms but required only a quarter of the purchase price down. The rest was paid out of harvest profits over four years. Much of congressional land legislation provided for cred­it - the Desert Land Act of 1877, for instance, offered farms in huge areas of the West for as little as 25 cents an acre down, provided only the purchaser promised to irrigate. Congress also encouraged company debt by, for instance, providing land free to railroads that could bor­row enough money from the banks to lay down track. America's 19th-century pursuit of her "manifest destiny," both in land settlement and in the communications revolution that made it possible, was essentially launched on credit.

Behind this willingness to shoulder debt was the profoundly felt sense of America's co­founders that Almighty God had intended it that way: that Canaan, God's Country, the Promised Land, had been given to the Chosen People to be enjoyed in the here-and-now, and that it was permitted to go into the red provided only that each member of the elect had the industry and self-discipline to work his way out of it. And that is precisely what the vast majority always did. That was what America was about. The Declaration of Independence laid down what no other political document in the whole of history had yet claimed, that men were "endowed by their Creator" with the right not only to "Life" and "Liberty" but the pursuit of Happiness. By this last, what the Founding Fathers had in mind was the acquisition, by honest effort, of property, which they saw as the precondition of human felicity. Without widely dispersed property, true individual indepen­dence, and so a sound Republic, was impossible. Hence it was the business of the General Gov­ernment, as indeed of the states, each in its way, to create the conditions for this process. The Supreme Court, under John Marshall, set up a property-based structure of federal law; and much of the politics of the 19th century ­- President Andrew Jackson's creation of the Democratic Party, for instance - had as its aim the provision of cheap credit so that poor men could acquire property, the key to happiness.

But if America set its sights on the extremist vision of utopia on earth and used debt to get there, it was also careful to construct a federal framework, within which individuals pursued happiness, designed to be provident and frugal. As I say, there were two kinds of men who created America. There were the visionaries, the extremists, the fanatics, who saw America in religious terms, who executed the ungodly and burned witches and who, by preaching the doctrine of the Promised Land, raised the ex­pectations of ordinary Americans to the heights. But there were also the practical men, the moderates, raised in the tradition of the English Parliament with its give-and-take, compromising approach, and the old Common Law. These were the men who put together the nuts and bolts of the individual states, gave them law and government and commerce, and in due course drafted the Constitu­tion and implemented it. Men like Richard Henry Lee, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston -succeeded in due course by other sensible men like Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton, Martin Van Buren and De Witt Clinton. The extremists supplied the vision, but it was the moderates who brought it into existence.

An excellent way of examining the course of American history, as it de­velops under the impulse of the ex­tremists and the guiding hand of the moderates, is to look at the national debt. Pursuing the Ideal of independence in the 1770s - a utopian vision as it must then have seemed to many, and dynamized by radical views of human rights - the Founding Fathers not only created the national debt but led the new nation into the worst inflation in its history: By 1780 the $240 million of paper "Continentals" it had issued were almost worthless. America was extricated from this mess by the financial genius of the archetype practical, moderate statesman, Alex­ander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Trea­sury. His ingenious funding plan, based as it had to be on the notion that the federal government must be frugal, not only restored America's credit but attracted foreign capital, so that by 1803 the nation had no trouble borrowing the money to finance the Louisiana Purchase. Thereafter, Washington, run for the most part by sensible men, kept the purse strings tight to the point where President Jackson, in 1835, while pushing for individual cheap credit, had reduced the debt - which in 1791, when Hamilton's plan first came into being, stood at $75 million, or 40% of GNP - to virtually zero satisfactory. This state of affairs has never been achieved by any other power, before or since.

"Thereafter, the debt rose in accordance with national emergencies, and was reduced by moderate, sensible men when they had passed. By the end of the Civil War - a bloody and expensive episode made inevitable by extremist, fanatical strain in American life – it had risen to over $2.76 billion. Twenty-eight years later it had been reduced to only a third of amount, though the GNP had more than doubled in the meantime. This prudent management continued. The debt rose to $25 billion at the end of the First World War, and was then prudently reduced by about a third during the prosperous 1920s. As a result of the Great Depression, when deficit financing become inevitable to get the country at work again, it rose once more, standing at $48 billion in 1939. With the Second World War it rose still further, this time astronomically, to $271 billion by 1946. But again the dictates of prudence began to operate. Between 1946, its high point, and 1975, the national debt was reduced by more than half. Expressed in terms of 1991 dollars, the debt fell from $13,381 per capital at the end of the war to $6,349 per capita in 1975.

That was satisfactory, conforming to the pattern of 200 years of sound federal government. But then, in the late 1970s, a curious thing happened. Without an emergency, without a world war, without even the excuse of a severe recession, the national debt began to rise again, first slowly, then more rapidly. By the end of President Reagan's first term, it stood (still in 1991 dollars) at over $8,600 per capita. By the end of his second term it was nearly $12,000 per capita, well on its way to the post-World War II peak. Since then it has reached a historic high.

Why is this? Why, for the first time in its independent existence, has the nation abandoned the fundamental prudence with which it has hitherto conducted its financial affairs? A number of figures, compiled by Davidson, and William Rees-Mogg in their book The Great Reckoning, show the deterioration, at least in statistical terms, in the 60 or so years since 1929, when the nation was on the brink of the greatest financial crisis in its history. These figures help to explain the deficit­. In1929, government had few long-term unfunded liabilities: By 1990 it had $14 trillion. In 1929 government - federal, state and local - was small, employing less than 10% of the work force. By the 1980s it was enormous, and employed 21.2% of the work force. In 1929, transfer payments were largely confined to former government employees. By 1990 they em­braced a huge segment of the nation. Govern­ment involvement in every aspect of national life has increased almost immeasurably.

All these factors explain why, although in 1989 government took 36.8% of personal in­comes in taxes, it was still adding massively every year to its enormous debt. That meant a grow­ing proportion of its revenues were devoted, year by year, simply to servicing the debt, and in turn (since its expenditures were not substan­tially reduced) that meant added pressure either to raise taxes or to expand the deficit and so increase the debt still further.

Why has the nation got itself into this fix? I suggest that the underlying reason lies in the continuing conflict between extremists and moderates in American society, between those seeking to build utopia and those who believe the object of government is merely to create an equitable framework in which industrious men and women can prosper. The extremist utopian elements have lost the fundamentalist religious impulse that was their origi­nal dynamic in the 17th century. They have, in fact, become secularized. What they have embraced instead is the secularized utopianism of the 20th century: the belief that society can be made comfortable, safe, healthy and secure for all, irrespective of merit or effort, and that the agency in this process is the state. This secular utopia has not been realized, any more than the religious-inspired Zion of the Pilgrim Fathers was realized. And sensible people will argue that it never can be. But the continuing ef­fort to realize it, now going back a whole generation, has proved enormously and increasingly expensive. Religious utopias in­volve burning witches and forcing children to go to church twice or even thrice on Sunday; but they do not cost money. Secular utopias cost the earth.

Moreover, pursuing the secular utopia has led to a dangerous malfunction in the practice of the separation of powers, which lies at the heart of the U.S. Constitution. By and large, the secular utopians have captured Congress, while the moderates have continued to occupy the White House and so the agencies of government. High-spending congressmen, pursuing aims that by their nature are ultimately unrealizable, have proved popular with voters locally, and so have acquired strong security of tenure. That explains the continued domination of Congress, especially the House, by Democrats. And that in turn means that it has proved impossible for federal governments, no matter how deter­mined - and they have not been very determined - to reduce transfer payments and utopian elements in domestic spending.

At the same time, the electorate as a whole, voting nationally, has expressed its concern at the country's drift into financial profligacy by sending to the White House candidates pledged to do something about it, or at least advocating programs that will not make it substantially worse. In practice, this has led to dichotomy: Democratic Congresses, unwilling cut do­mestic spending, and Republican administrations, unwilling to raise taxes. Thus the federal polity of the United States is under the conflicting control of both extremists and moderates, of utopians and pragmatists, both blaming the other for what is, at bottom, a profoundly immoral procedure - spending money by borrowing against the future. The result is deficit and the mounting debt.

Now this public debt comes on top volume of private debt, which itself is increasing. As I have argued, the United States was created by the judicious use of private credit. But this was balanced by a strict regimen probity. That has now been abandoned, and there is no longer a balancing factor. All is debt, and an enormous burden is being shifted onto the shoulders of future generations.

My belief is that the American people, as an entity, have a strong, deep-rooted moral sense, and a clear view of what is right and what is wrong, especially in money dealings. In some respects, notably in regular church attendance, they are still the most religious people on earth. For that reason, they are well aware of the improvident manner in which debt is being accumulated. They know it is wrong as well as foolish. As individuals they feel powerless to do anything. As collective voters they are divided. So the wrong is not righted. The folly continues. They are, in consequence, profoundly uneasy. Surrounded, as most of them seem to be, by unprecedented prosperity, by material acquisitions no earlier generations have enjoyed anywhere, they sense there is something false and unsubstantial in the glitter. Hence their pettish mood, which often takes the unreasonable for, of sniping and bellyaching in the midst of plenty.

But this unreasonableness may in the end prove a blessing. A returning sense of wrongdoing often takes irrational forms but is none the less welcome. There is a famous Victorian painting showing a beautiful woman, who is in “living in sin," suddenly profoundly disturbed by the strains of a tune her lover is picking out on the piano, which recalls her childhood innocence. The work is called "The Awakening Conscience." That is what is currently inflicting itself on America - an awakened conscience – and it may be the first step towards a remedy.

Are We All Feeling Better Yet? A Tragicomedy in Four Scenes by Simon Schama

Simon Schama, a professor of history at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, is the author of Citi­zens: A Chronicle of the French Revolu­tion, for which he won the NCR Book Award, as well as An Embarrassment of Riches and Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculation).


Enter Chorus with cellular phone.

Friends, Fellow Americans, lend me your votes. I come not to praise representative government but to bury it. I mean, fellas, who needs it? All that yap-yap, scribble­-scribble, and nothing getting fixed.

Yes, my friends, the era of couch potato democ­racy is at hand, the political equivalent of fast food - fully electronic, superconducted, user-friendly, drive-through citizenship. No need now to slog through boring, complicated position statements, fine-print journalism, party platforms, legislative proposals, congressional hearings and debates. We're talking bottom-line problem-solving here.

And you can forget the inconvenience of driving all the way to a polling station in some dinky little school, getting in the voting booth and reading all those columns of God-knows­ who running for God-knows-what. Starting real soon, from the comfort of your very own den, you will be able to sample the options and hit the remote. Why, you could do it between innings. In fact, why not save ourselves some time and effort here and have Brent Musburger or Bryant Gumbel or Larry King give us the questions? Why have a Constitution when America can be tuned into one terrific Talk Show?

Believe me, it's as easy as pie and you won't feel a thing. No pain, no taxes. All you have to do is to follow the Leader, hit the right button on cue and shazzam, 600 billion dollars' worth of deficit disappears. Am I right? Are we feeling better yet?

Well, never mind, there are still places where Feelgood America is doing just fine, thank you.

Scene One

Hand-jive at the mall

There are places deep in the malls of America where even today the spirit of 1955 lives on. A bona fide marketing genius has created a time bubble eatery called Johnny Rockets (coming shortly to your neighborhood), in which you can guzzle blissfully on an innocent past: perfect cold malted milks, fries for which the state of Idaho might have been invented, BLTs of peer­less crispy-crunchiness. If God is not actually in these soda fountains, apple pie that tastes as though it might have been by Him certainly is. The Johnny Rockets diner in Burlington, Mass., just outside Boston, looks like an installation at the Museum of Modern Art, down to the shiny red bar stools, the jukebox selectors at each booth, and the photos from Life on the wall. The soda jerks are from Central Casting: corn­fed, clean-cut, indefatigably good-natured. If you pick the right numbers on the juke, the waitresses will hand-jive for you. On the night we were there everyone sang Happy Birthday to my 9-year-old daughter. The place was packed with teenage dental hardware and the air was thick with Ike-liking.

Bottled happiness - who does it better than America? We are, after all, the only great empire whose founding charter expressly articulated the right to be happy (or at least to pursue it). The trouble is that we tend to confuse the good life with a life of goods, that Bluebird of Happiness with the Right to Shop. And right now, Dame Fortune (a.k.a. the business cycle) isn't smiling on us. But, hey, not to worry. There's nothing so wrong that a real take-charge guy couldn't fix it with a touch of elbow grease, right?

Don't count on it. Some months ago I pub­lished an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times comparing Yeltsin's Russia with pre-revolution­ary France. A colossal burden of debt, an inno­vative but politically incoherent government, the self-defeating expectation that the invention of democracy comes with a full market basket­ all seemed to warrant the comparison. But perhaps analogies become obses­sions. For these days it is our own floundering poli­ty, the United States, that looks more like a pre-revolutionary danger zone. And the magnitude of our troubles is not to be measured simply by the conventional indices of economic perfor­mance. More housing starts, a little leap in the “consumer confidence” ratings or a pickup in autosales may signal some short of return to short-term cheerfulness, but these indices say nothing about the deep systemic sicknesses that may in the end determine that the American Century will have lasted, in fact, for just 50 years. In ways that may be irreversible, we have become lawless (66 million handguns); mindless (Check your television listings); and directionless. Our national temper is sour, our attention span limited, our fuse short. We yearn, childishly, for a cowboy in a white hat to ride into town. We are ripe for political disaster.

Scene Two

No more Polish jokes, please

Northeast Poland is a place of deep forests and mirror lakes. It is one of the last unruined paradises in Europe, so I won't tell you where exactly I have in mind, much less how to get there. Trust me. In one of these lakes teenagers splash and laugh while a small battle takes place on the bank. (This is a topography of ancient battles - between Polish Kings and Teutonic knights and between Russian and German ar­mies.) This battle, however, involves only two men and a cow. One of these men, small, wiry, with the obligatory bristling Walesa moustache, pulls the cow towards the water to make it drink.

His partner pushes from behind. The cow does not want to go but is finally, slitheringly dragged into the lake, where it eventually gets the idea and proceeds to slurp.

It seems like a lot of work. Jan, the senior cow puller, tells us he is an unemployed construction worker who simply couldn't face doing nothing about his predicament. A country boy by origin, he decided he would be a meat wholesaler, hoping to cash in on steeply rising prices in Warsaw and other Polish cities. He had bought the cow for 3.5 million zlotys (about $280). But since he had no transport of any kind he had walked (or dragged) the animal 5 miles from the farmyard to his house in the local town. Soon, he says, he will butcher the cow, turn it into saleable veal, and take the product to the meat marketers in the nearest big urban center. But he is not a happy entre­preneur. He has discovered that the meat marketers (who sell to the butchers) dictate, rather than negoti­ate, prices, and their non­negotiable prices mean his profit will be just 600,000 zlotys, or around $48, a pitiful reward for all his work. Jan shrugs his shoulders, "What can I do?" He is learning capitalism the hard way. The market economy that has replaced the paternalist communist state has already robbed him of one job and made his efforts to turn himself into a producer a cruel joke. With almost nothing he nevertheless remains defiant and ebullient. He will make it. Poland will make it. The cow will drink at the lake.

A few miles away, in the heart of the Mazurian lakeland, a gleaming new hotel stands incongru­ously in a landscape of small farms, horse plows and timber cottages. Its five stories dominate a hillside as did the gentry's country houses and hunting lodges of past centuries. But instead of stables and carriage drives in front, there is a helicopter, its rotors twirling, ready to take tourists on their flight over the lakes. There is a swimming pool, a lobby with acres of gleaming marble. There are even-mirabile dictu-elec­tric hand driers in the spotless white-and chrome bathrooms.

Though the place looks and feels like a Hyatt clone, right down to the plastic-and-rock water­falls in the lobby and the almost unnaturally breezy and efficient table service, all the guests are Polish. So someone in the new Poland is making enough money to support all this crystal glassware and white table linen. The hotel, open for barely six months, sports the name of its founder and entrepreneur, very much as though he had already set his sights on becoming the Polish Conrad Hilton. Over a terrific bowl of zurek, the sour-cream soup, we ask our waitress if the owner is, like Stanislaw Tyminski, the Canadian businessman who came back to Poland to run for the presidency against Lech Walesa, a foreign-born Pole reinvesting in homeland. Nie, absolutely not, she say with a smile of beaming pride, he is "one of ours.”

Not everyone in Poland is quite this ready to be made over in the image of Adam Smith in Las Vegas. We breakfasted on country white cheese and fresh-baked rye bread at a monastery overlooking over another of the lakes that had turned into a conference center by the Ministry of Culture. The food was delectable, the building handsome, the views spectacular. We asked for coffee. "Ah," said the blonde waitress flashing a dazzling smile, "coffee is upstairs at the bar, this is tea." Our photographer, Tadeusz was brazen enough to push his luck. “Er, any possibility of someone bringing the coffee downstairs?" An even more dazzling the reply, "Maybe."

"It takes longer than a year or two to emerge from communist contempt for the philosophy of customer service," Tadeusz said, needlessly apologizing (for the tea, as the waitress well knew, was wonderful).

Nowadays butter and margarine are plentiful in the cities, along with most other kind of foodstuffs like meat, fresh vegetables and fruit. All it takes is the income to buy them. For the implementation of free-market has been so brutally effective that many households in Poland, perhaps most, now spend 70% to 80% of their income on food.

Not since the Industrial Revolution can there possibly have been so violent a shock to expectations about living standards. If Americans accustomed to their binge-and-bust lifestyle as a constitutional right, ever had to endure even a fraction of the economic pain borne by the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, it is unthinkable what political ugliness might ensue.

So we should not be surprised to discover such societies having a hard time settling into the working habits of viable democracy. The least predicted feature of life after communism (at least outside Russia) is not disagreement over economic policy. For however painful the reforms may be, they seem to accepted, at least in the cities, as the inevitable price to be paid for years of communist economic fantasy. The most serious sources of destabilization in much of Eastern Europe come from ancient tribal hatreds and incompatibilities. And as in Poland, populations are almost ethically and culturally homogeneous, it is the dreadful burden of suspicion and recrimination, pointing fingers and publishing lists about who did and who did not collaborate with the discredited regime, that makes a genuine pluralism so diffi­cult to accomplish. While dissidents who were once united in their anticommunism bicker over the purity of their credentials, their erstwhile persecutors sit back and enjoy capitalism at its most opportunistic. Edward Gierek, one of the last hardline Polish communist leaders, is now a millionaire (in dollars, not zlotys, my informant insisted) from sales of his memoirs. Out of power, he is incomparably more popular than in power. (The opposite is true of Lech Walesa.) At signing sessions the lines outside the bookstores stretched round the block.

It is impossible to be in Warsaw and not believe, or at least hope, that the Poles (and for that matter, the Czechs and the Hungarians) will make it. For all the privations and desperate anxieties, there is a phenomenal hunger to succeed; and great energy and determination to work at it. Not everything about this scene is heroic. The "new Poles" point to the pathetic "Russian markets" spread out on the cobble­stones by itinerant vendors trying to sell Yeltsin dolls, carnations, a basket of cucumbers, any­thing, as their new underclass. And at the very bottom of the heap, lying in wretchedness all around the streets of Cracow, one of the most spectacularly beautiful cities in the world, are Romanian beggars.

Scene Three

Liverpool Street station

I rubbed my eyes, as they say, in disbelief. The taxi had dropped me off at Liverpool Street railway station in London, a place I had known throughout the Sixties and Seventies as a scruffy, crumbling rat hole of a station covered in soot and grease with urinous smells that would leap out at you unpredictably as you walked to the tracks, and where surly ticket takers would punch your ticket as if they hoped the clippers would go right through your hand.

And now there was the railroad's answer to Xanadu. What good fairy had waved a wand? The station had turned into a palace, and I was fairly transported. The floors were some sort of polished white stone, sparkling clean. The great glazed hemispherical roof was clear enough to let in the sunshine of a London spring, and the ribs of iron girders had been restored to their original Victorian polychrome brilliance, all Grenadier Guard scarlet and royal blue. Up from the entry ramp and down the immense operatic staircase poured tens of thousands of travelers with expressions on their face altogether different (so it seemed to me) from standard-issue bilious misery that usually went with ordeal by British Rail. And even if had gone badly, on their way to the track they could brighten it in at an incredible array of stores selling everything from exotic fruit juices to hand-milled soap to 15 varieties of cheese (all of which, to those FORBES readers not expert in the Welsh cheeses, I can say make the French equivalents pale by comparison for sheer savory voluptuousness).

Not everything about British Rail 1992 is showplace perfect. A few days before a station, Euston, I had been treated to a more predictable version of public transport. The idea was to get to Manchester by high-speed City train. But after 20 minutes waiting in the cars, with that uncomplaining British resignation I have definitely lost, passengers were treated to the following announcement. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 2:20 to Manchester. British Rail wishes to apologize for this delay, which has occurred because . . . er. . . there is no engine." "Bloody hell” muttered a commuter behind me, whose British sangfroid had finally turned to sang-churd last week they had the engine but forgot the driver.”

Only in England. But in all Europe, ­travel by rail remains phenomenally successful and popular. The French system SNCF pioneered lightning trains that can now get passengers from Paris to Lyons or Bordeaux in less than three hours. In the most densely populated areas like the Netherlands, cities are supplied with invariably punctual trains every 20 minutes or so (perpetuating the tradition of the old passenger barges of the 17th-century canals with their two-class travel and dependable timetables.) Even beleaguered Poland now has a superb service that covers the distance between Warsaw and Cracow in about two and a half hours.

By contrast, the United States has a pathetic remnant of a once majestic railroad system, lumbering along on ancient track, and with obsolescent rolling stock. In fact, Amtak does the best job it can with absolutely no willingness on the part of its national government (again, unlike the Europeans or the Japanese) to invest in the technological improvements that could make it competitive with the airlines. So instead of real choice between modes of transport over medium-haul distances, the airlines (who never seem capable of turning a profit) enjoy a virtual monopoly and treat the regular traveler to a succession of overpriced ordeals: filthy food, unhealthy air, and a series of barefaced lies about arrival and departure times.

No wonder we feel lousy.

Scene Four

The hustings

None of this matters beside one chilling statistic more truly terrifying even than the monstrous scale of our national debt; the numbing scale of our homicide rate; the shaming data rising about infant mortality; the scary return of tuberculosis; the relentless march of AIDS; the appalling rates of adult illiteracy; the clouding of our children's minds by hour upon hour of televisual smog; the huge vagrant encampments of the homeless; the stupefying divorce rate. No, none of this should scare us half as much as the single damning fact that barely half of Americans entitled to vote do so.

For nothing, as Tocqueville knew, will condemn a democracy, first to impotence then to manipulation and finally to self-destruction, more certainly than indifference. By contrast, for example, there was a 77% turnout for the British general election last April. But then, British elections, with all their faults, are much less the prisoners than their American counterparts of the opinion polls, the media-managers, the handlers and fundraisers. Television time in the UK is allotted impartially and equally between the parties, not bought by the deepest pockets. During the three weeks of their campaign, spending by candidates for the House of Parliament is limited to just $15,000. And whatever one thinks of the result, there is no doubt whatsoever that in the last British campaign no major issue of serious concern to the electorate - from European policy to health care to education reform and proportional representation - failed to be directly and exhaustively addressed by the parties. The Labor Party was even responsible enough to cost its proposed programs carefully and spell out exactly how it would pay for them, not that this candor did it much good.

Perhaps something like the British system would never work in our continental democracy. But when it is axiomatically rejected as fit only for cottage elections, it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that there are huge industries - political consultancies; professional image-makers and breakers; fund-drive merchants; scandalmongers - all of whom have a vested interest in perpetuating the trashy status quo and who would still feed off the dying carcass of democracy even if voting rates were down to 10% or 5%. At the time when business are being touted as just the thing to clean up government , it's worth noticing that it’s just because politics has become so outrageously commercialized that it now has the moral authority of a toxic waste dump.

Why has America lost faith in its own politics, rooted as they are in a Constitution that remains, for all its imperfections, the noblest working document that democracy has ever produced?

The first reason is the calamity that has befallen the language in which democracy is practiced. You need only listen to paid political advertisements or the miserable travesties of political argument announced as "Debates” to agree with Orwell that democracy lives or dies with the clarity and integrity of its speech. It is no accident that from the very beginnings of Western culture, the learning and practice of rhetoric were at the core of its pedagogy, and every high school debate team carries with it the presumption of the moral significance of eloquence. It is not simply the ornament of democracy. It is its basic working tool, the agency of explanation, persuasion and trust, between politicians and the people.

Such an optimal description bears no resemblance, of course, to the wretched mush of banalities, deceits and abuse that constitutes the habitual forms of political language in this country. Negative campaigning is now the expected norm in our crouch potato democracy. Its working premise assumes that the People out there are too lazy, too stupid and have too short an attention span ever to pay heed to the substantive issues that will really affect them. On the other hand, playing the lowest common denominator, fear, prurience, hatred, contempt, will always get their attention. And when at all possible, use crouch potato references as a substitute for serious argument, since fictitious television characters command more concern and loyalty than live ones. Wheel on Murphy Brown’s baby.

The result of all this is the trivialization of the American political process to the point where it has become a grim joke. The goal of campaigns, abetted by most press coverage, has been to distract the voters from, not concentrate their minds on, the issues that will determine their lives. Give them sound bites and photo-ops. Make sure that whatever happens in “debates” isn't actually debating, but a formulaic exchange of predetermined positions and utterances, and then present it as thought it were a sporting event, with commentaries on “winners” and “losers.” Nothing too heavy, man, just the kind of politics that can be effortlessly consumed with a bag of Doritos and a can of Miller Lite.

It's not Demosthenes I'm asking for, you understand, not even Abraham Lincoln (though he would help), just somebody who has the eloquence to restore to America its lost sense of a shared community. Without it we are doomed to the rhetoric of division, of utterly alienated and separated communities - black, white, Asian, Hispanic, urban, suburban, Chris­tian, Jewish, pro-choice, pro-life, all against all.

Hardly less important is the reinvention of government. Ronald Reagan's famous dictum that "government is not the answer, it's the problem" powerfully reinforced an old notion in America that regards public administration as an unclean thing. The force of the cliché is now so strong that anyone presuming to suggest a little more, rather than a lot less, regulation, has to defend himself against the accusation of proposing socialism by the back door.

The country is faced, nevertheless, with a vast array of brutal problems, many of which cry out for more, not less, governmental intervention. Public health, the environ­ment, education, relations between local and central government all need the kind of coherence and lead­ership that an activist government might supply. This is, after all, the nation of Hamilton as well as Jeffer­son. Is it conceivable that one day we might even end up with a President who was not ashamed to point out to the country that there might actually be decent and pressing purposes for which their tax money might be spent?

We need to feel better about our government because the crises we face are so urgent and so terrible. Even at the most minimal level, govern­ment should have responsibility for the physical protection of its citizens. But for decades now governments, intimidated by the NRA, have run away from the single statistic that provokes horrified amazement everywhere else in the world: the presence of 66 million handguns in the population, a real fetish of violence, death and revenge celebrated every night on small and big screens. And nowhere else in the world does the assumption run so conventionally unchal­lenged that the best deterrent for murder is capital punishment, a premise belied by the records of every country in the world, where its elimination is accompanied by homicide rates an infinitesimal fraction of the rising tide of Ameri­can bloodshed.

The list of tasks is endless, almost overwhelm­ing. For example, how about a decent and ambitious national educational curriculum that does away with the mechanical multiple-choice testing turned out by the testing organizations, themselves more interested in profit than education? And despite recent attacks on PBS, we need more, not less, federal commitment to public broadcasting, especially in the shape of imaginative children's programming so that some chance of rescuing them from the idiotization (to use Carl Bernstein's term) that comes from countless hours of being deposited before the box as apprentice couch potatoes.

Most of all, though, we are in n­eed of a government that is not ashamed of its own job description.

It's an old joke in our family that the Schamas have an uncanny knack for following collapsing empires. A century and a half ago we were subjects of the Ottoman Empire; then, as that disintegrated, took ourselves off to Habsburg Vienna; thence, in my parents' generation, to Edwardian Britain. And here I am.

Yet there's nowhere I'd rather make my home. For all its ills and sorrow and plagues and vexations; this country still has phenomenal reserves of raw energy, creative inventiveness, courageous idealism and gritty determination. Unlike my place of birth on the other side of the Atlantic, it is not a culture in which gentle skepticism really thrives. With rare exceptions like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, America has usually taken its sense of historical destiny too seriously to value historical irony, at least in public discourse. Yet outrageous self-mockery is one of the things America does best, flaying the sentimentality that makes State of the Union addresses seem as though they were composed from greeting cards.

Time and time again throughout their history Americans have shown an amazing for responding to the threat of disaster by rediscovering their sense of community. What lies ahead, though, is not some sort of imminent apocalypse, the sudden and brutal extinction of power of the kind just experienced by the Soviet Union. If American power dies, it will be a death from a thousand cuts, all of them self-inflicted, rather than any kind of wound from an outside enemy.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the campaign of 1992 may be seen by historians as an altogether happier watershed in the American public life: the moment when politics was liberated from the public relations men; when it recovered enough nerve to address real issues and when, at long last, the America public tired of their allotted role as couch potato democrats and bestirred themselves enough to want the real thing. Perhaps.

But I don't feel too good about it.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alfred Kazin

Literary critic, essayist, journalist, author of On Na­tive Ground and A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin is one of America's most distinguished men of letters.

I have lived 77 years of what Henry Luce once grandly called "The Ameri­can Century," and I know I am old because the century was once rich in utopias that are now meaningless to most Americans. We did not call them "utopias"- we called them The Classless Soci­ety, The Melting Pot, The Abolition of Race Prejudice, A New Republic, Progressivism, The Promise of American Life, The Equality Of The Sexes, The New Freedom, A New Deal, The Fair Deal, The New Frontier.

Some of these hopes, ideals, reform move­ments were effective and absorbed into Ameri­can life. Socialism, promising a thorough over­haul of the "system," had its brief moral mo­ment here before World War I. Too often confined to immigrant communities, it lacked the messianic fury, the spirit of total condemnation that, exploiting the horrors of the "Great War," transformed itself into totalitarianism that has taken the best part of the 20th century to defeat. What has not remained anywhere is the "utopian" drive and confidence in the future that sparked the early 20th century. We live in an age of unparalleled technological power and scientific advance, but the spirit is tired, political authority is discredited, civic violence is on a mass scale, race relations are at their worst in the vast underclass, public education is a catastro­phe; the general dependence on commercial television sets the tone, the speech, the morale of our national life toward an irreversible medi­ocrity. The only thing a lot of people seem to devote their intelligence to is their personal bookkeeping - and much good this does many of them. "Americans seem to live life as a game of chance," as Stendhal observed. I believe many Americans feel that way today.

To begin with, there is the meanness, callousness, the sheer inhumanity of public life in America just now. Maybe it doesn't altogether start with our leaders and their famously hard-nosed advisers, but they can't seem to open mouths without sounding like cynical croupiers in Las Vegas tearlessly watching the losers slink away from the tables.

"What I want to see above all is this country remains a country where someone can always get rich," Ronald Reagan told us. Who could quarrel with that except to wonder what kind of national leader it was who wanted that "above all" for a country that ranks last among 19 nations in its infant mortality rate; in which one in four homeless people in cities is a child?

"We haven't got our priorities right,” a teacher in Campbell County, Tenn, declared. The county had grown so poor it couldn't afford school buses, so many of the kids didn't go to school. Some promising kids had given up entirely, no longer wanted to go to school. The story of Campbell County was brought to national a­ttention by Peter Jennings on ABC. We were given views of the governor, who didn't seem particularly concerned, and of the state legislature in session, where nothing seemed to be happening. The plaintive voice of one citizen: “If the federal government can spend so much on ‘defense,' why can't they do just a little something for the children?"

One reason for our present condition is that almost half a century we were preoccupied by the Cold War. Maybe it couldn't have worked any other way, given the dangerous rivalry of the two great powers at the conclusion of the Second World War. Maybe even Vietnam couldn't have been avoided, to say nothing of McCarthyism, "the scoundrel time" of the great anti-Communist crusade at home, the heavy presence of nuclear weapons, the youth revolt of the Sixties, the sickening underhand power of a presidency that made possible Water­gate. But as the powers that be were always too powerful, the people themselves were too divid­ed, too disorganized, too wrapped up in their personal concerns to challenge the Moloch of national "security" in any fundamental particu­lar. Where people were not just easily crushed, they were hopelessly angry. There was a leaching out of morale, of mutual concern, of active citizenship, of civility

Here is where we are now. Our latest economic boom has burst, the streets of every big city - and many a small town - are filled with the homeless, junkies, criminals, unemployed peo­ple standing in front of empty shops. And the malaise is even more cultural and spiritual than it is economic.

On the fashionable right as on the defunct left there is unwearied extremism, the violence in human relations one associates with totalitarian states. James S. Brady, the Reagan White House press secretary who was shot in the head and permanently disabled, was booed off the stage in Las Vegas along with his wife by angry opponents of gun control. The Bra­dys were appearing at the University of Nevada, where they had been invit­ed to speak on the "Brady Bill," proposing a very moderate measure toward gun control. Most of the 500 people in the audience appeared receptive to the Bradys, but sat in si­lence during outbursts by the heck­lers, who had just come in from a rally against gun control. Mrs. Brady was heckled throughout her 40-minute speech. The heckling began (Brady on stage in a wheelchair) after Mrs.Brady said there were laws to make sure cars were used safely, but no such laws for guns. "That's the way it should be!" one person shouted, starting a chorus of taunts and boos.

Mayor David Dinkins of New York, a city in a financial bind, proposes spending millions for metal detectors of guns in New York schools after two students at Thomas Jefferson High School were shot. One in every five American students has handled a gun or rifle at some time. In Chicago a "gun man" salesman openly goes around poor neighborhoods offering his wares. I have heard on every side: "This country is not recognizable any more."

Enough comment, for the moment, on guns and violence. The U.S. Department of Educa­tion's 1991 Digest of Education Statistics shows that only a minority in the age group 21-25 has the literacy skills necessary to survive in our modern society, and 4% of the young adult population is totally illiterate. Only 20% can use bus timetables, which means that the majority cannot follow work manuals. Only 22.5% can figure out the percentage for a restaurant tip; 44% cannot locate information in an almanac or news story.

“You are saved,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; “you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”

“the negro.”

– Herman Melville, Benito Cereno (1856)

Melville's tale describes a mutiny aboard a slave ship that was overcome only with help of an American skipper, Captain Delano who cannot understand why the Spanish captain remains haunted by "the negro.” That was before the Civil War. Americans just now, whether they acknowledge it or not, have for a long time been equally "haunted"- and more so than now.

Government statistics: 15.8% of black men of working age are jobless, more than twice the rate of unemployment among white men. One in every four black men age 20 to 29 is in prison, on parole or on probation, accordingly to a private study conducted in 1990. The homicide rate for black males 15 to 24 has increased by 132% since 1984 and is now leading cause of death in the group. In 1990 the New England journal of Medicine estimated that black young men in Harlem are less likely to reach the age of 40 than young men in Bangladesh.

The United States imprisons a larger share of its population than any other nations. It has widened its lead over the second-ranking country, South Africa. The American incarceration rate is 455 people per 100,000. This is ten times higher than those of Japan, Sweden, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

The black situation in America (12% of the population) is very complex. Millions of earnest churchgoers, an ever-growing middle class. The total of black elected officials has risen in 20 years -1970 to 1990 - from 1,479 to 7,335. Yet dozens of urban mayors despair while ­crime and a host of complex sorrows stifle the inner cities. I have counted four and five beggars to a block, block after block, on the streets of the Upper West Side in New York. You cannot out walk without being afflicted, and you are spiritually worse off if you manage to pass unscathed.

Is the idealizing of Africa a solution to the racial torment of America? At my alma mater, the College of the City of New York (more Nobel scientists than most America universities), I hear that I would be excluded from certain classes in Black history by Professor Leonard Jeffries. My skin is the wrong color and even my religion is objectionable to Professor Jeffries, for he insists that my ancestors were in the slave trade.

I am truly sorry to hear this about my ancestors. I had no idea. Professor Jeffries is telling me things - at the top his voice - I didn't know before. People of European ancestry are "ice people" who grew up in caves and have brought the world the three Ds, “Domination, destruction and death." Africans grew up in sunlight, are "sun people" whose skin pigment, melanin, makes them superior intellectually and physically. In America it is only white oppression that has kept them down.

Duke University is a famous university in Dur­ham, N.C., munificently endowed by the ciga­rette kings James Buchanan Duke and his broth­er Benjamin. Its basketball team is national champion, its medical school is extremely distinguished (I owe my life to one of its cardiac surgeons), and its nearness to the National Humanities Center and the famous Research Triangle makes it one of the most attractive as well as powerful institutions in the country.

In this academic paradise some of the most prominent Duke professors are bitterly divided over the issue of multiculturalism in the curricu­lum. At the center of it all is Professor Stanley Fish, former head of the English Department, an extremely bright, agile, self-confident intel­lectual radical who, without any visible ties to any social or political group outside academia, reminds me of Lenin in exile, living in public libraries and laying down the law to his little band before the Revolution gave him his chance to dominate the mind of Russia.

To understand Professor Fish you have to understand that the most advanced literary critics in the university are no longer interested in literature, "mere" literature, but in the devalua­tion of prevailing systems of thought that rest on our unthinking respect for words. Language is not just a "tool"; it is a human faculty in itself that shapes and dominates the innate dis­positions in ourselves to express our­selves in expected ways.

We can resist this only by "showing up" the presumed correlation of lan­guage with the outside world and with truth. By relentless interpreta­tion of even the most respected text, we can show that there may be noth­ing inevitable and incontrovertible in what it says. We have to unearth the hidden language strategy that really goes on in a piece of writing in order to shake off its authority over us.

So the political world always reveals itself to rigorous language analysis as a very shaky edifice indeed. The political world, these critics take it, is nothing but a competition of private interests, prejudices and "truths." Nothing and no one dare claim objective truth. There is no objective truth, no literal meaning, from which it follows, in Professor Fish's usual diffident way of putting things, that "there is no such thing as intrinsic merit" The books most established in our esteem just reflect particular interests. The great reputations are confined to "dead white males." Women, blacks, Native Americans, His­panics, homosexuals and other "marginalized” portions of our society have been too much excluded from our idea of culture. Multi culturalism seeks to broaden the curriculum especially at privileged places like Duke.

What angered the scholars opposing Professor Fish's group was hardly the idea of studying from other cultures. It was the plain fact that issues of race and sex were being introduced in the curriculum primarily for political reasons. They noted in a formal protest that "an examination of many women’s studies and minorities studies courses discloses little study of other cultures and much excoriation of our society for its alleged oppression of women, blacks and others." Professor Fish, in turn, dismissed the group, warning that it was "widely known to racist, sexist and homophobic." In a letter to the university provost he contended that members of the group opposing him should not be eligible to serve on major university committees. Since that time he has also become celebrated for explaining that "there is no such thing as free speech and it's a good thing too."

Don't for a second think this is all a tempest in a teapot. In the name of class-race-gender equality, teachers and students all over America are being trained in such intolerance to defame exclude those who do not follow the party line. To this teacher, old-fashioned enough to believe, in an age of widespread illiteracy, manufactured mass culture and mercilessly driving commercials, that literature, creative literature, is necessary to a civilized life, the culture seems irrevocable. What a relief it is to encourage a brilliant new black writer, Darry Pinckney (High Cotton, Farrar Straus & Giroux), who says that he wants "his book to be testimony not only to his race but of his devotion to literature as well. The book you try to write is in some funny way a love letter to the books you've loved. You want in your book to honor literature as an idea. You want to write for literature, for other books.”

Why don't our politically correct professors of humanities think of literature as a way of a feeding hunger in their minority students - If they have any - for the great world outside instead of flattering them that many classics can be discarded for books about their own experience? Black Studies, Women's Studies, Jewish Studies, Homosexual Studies all have their use in opening up long-suppressed fields of knowledge, in giving needed self-respect to people exposed to the derision and indifference to society. But when you begin to rewrite history and culture entirely in terms of the victim, who supposedly lives only at the "margin” of society, nothing can stop you from making up the terms as you go. There are no longer objective facts. Values sicken. You write trash.

The Modern Language Association is the largest professional organization of its kind in the country, including as it does not only schol­ars of every Western literature but teachers of foreign languages. It used to be fuddy-duddy in its devotion to the classic texts, but no longer. At MLA's 1990 convention one was privileged to hear that the secret of Emily Dickinson's poetry was her addiction to clitoral masturbation and that the Jane Austen who wrote with such wit and truth about love between men and women "disapproved of heterosexual love as a matter of aggression and conquest through which women learn to accept the superior judgment and pow­er of men." A protest against these bizarre statements was countered by the president of the MLA as nothing more than an attempt "to preserve the political and cultural supremacy of white hetero­sexual males."

What drives these folks? Social rage, of course, nostalgia for the Sixties, when the outrage of the Vietnam War pressed especially on young college men of the privileged classes. They sense that the humanities (that's where the academic left mostly re­sides) with their hierarchical "canon" of supposedly immortal masterpieces don't apply to minorities of every sort, not to say a society increasingly in crisis. But the basic reason is perhaps not "political" at all, in the classic sense that the Greek polis represented a common sphere, a meeting place for the community as a whole, a symbol of our endeavor as a people.

What is mostly happening now is that every­one, left and right, is doing his and her own thing and to the hell with anything beyond our own and sacred selves. Narcissism is our reigning ideology. The country is full of pro-life activists ready to commit murder on their "enemies," pro-choice women unwilling to hear religious considerations and family objections, feminist nuts seriously advocating race suicide (all sexual intercourse between men and women is rape), black and white zealots in the university deter­mined to drive out of the university anyone who does not meet their measure of racial exclusion. At the University of Texas the Black Faculty Caucus proclaimed, "If American literature, for example, is to be enlarged so as to include representative texts from ‘minority' groups, how do those groups' perspectives get into the course if the person teaching American litera­ture is a ‘nonminority' person? A critical mass of ‘minority' people empowered at all levels could contest unfair and inadequate representation."

Don't think for a moment that the right is more public-spirited than our academic ideo­logues. Antonin Scalia is said to be the most acute mind on the Supreme Court, and (with a little competition from the Chief Justice) probably the most illiberal. Unlike other justices; he is honest and forthright about his indifference "restorative justice" for blacks. Before he went on the court, he admitted in an interview to the Washington University Law Quarterly.

"It seems to be the fact that the decisions by each of the Justices on the Court are tied together by threads of social preference and predisposition.

"My father came to this country when he was a teenager. Not only had he never profited from the sweat of any black man's brow, I don’t think he had ever seen a black man. There are, of course, many white ethnics that came to this country in great numbers relatively late in its history - Italians, Jews, Poles - who not only took no part in, and derived no profit from, the major historic suppression of the current acknowledged minority groups, but were, in fact, themselves the object of discrimination by the dominant Anglo-Saxon majority…But compare their racial debt - since the concept of ‘restorative justice' implies it; there is no creditor without a debtor - with those who plied the slave trade, and who maintained a formal caste system for many years thereafter is to confuse a mountain with a molehill. Yet curiously enough, we find that in the system of justice ... it is entirely these groups that do most of the restoring. It is they who, to a disproportionate degree, are the competitors with urban blacks and Hispanics for jobs, housing and education."

This argument is impeccable, but mean. It reminds me of what a former chairman of Philip Morris had to say about the statistics tracking deaths from cigarette smoking, environmental hazards and other 20th-century afflictions. "The only pure people are the monks on top of the Himalayas."

The great Russian writer Solzhenitsyn exiled in Vermont, is a Russian monarchist at heart. His narrow views are likely to remind many Americans of what led their grandfathers to leave Russia in the first place. But he is one of our century's great voices because of his genius for spotting what underlies a country’s social reality. His comments on the difference between communist Russia and free America. “ In the United States the difficulties are not a Minotaur or a dragon - not imprisonment, hard labour, death, government harassment, censorship - but cupidity, boredom, sloppiness and indifference. Not the acts of a mighty all-pervading repressive government but the failure of a listless public to make use of the freedom that is its birthright."